The twice-distilled French liquor known as Cognac has accrued eager devotees and has slowly gone from spirit you might notice when glancing at the dessert menu, to something more drinkers are ordering when they're early to dinner and want to unwind. Cognac, it seems, is finally having its moment in America.
So let's cut to the chase and tell you how it tastes. In one's first glass of Cognac, served neat, the initial aroma is akin to what Islay scotch would smell like if someone had muddled sweet fruit into it. Cognac is a type of brandy, from the Dutch brandewijn: "burned wine," warming the body on a frigid night without the heft of a cocktail or beer. A first whiff soars through the nose and lands somewhere inside your left thigh. The aftertaste leaves a sweet burn, like a peach cooked under an open flame. And while one can drink bourbon everywhere from the outhouse to the courthouse, Cognac tends to serve as either the end of a hearty meal or its halftime show: a digestif to cut through rich cassoulet.
"It certainly wasn't one of the first things I drank, but I remember being quite young and my mother having a bottle of Courvoisier that she treasured," says Rosie Schaap, author and the writer behind the monthly "Drink" columns for the New York Times Magazine. "I just thought that the word 'Courvoisier' was so elegant and beautiful."
You don't go to a bar and hear people ordering it very often, so it might seem to some as if the U.S. has a small population of devotees. Yet the numbers tell a different story: America's consumption of Cognac rose to No. 1 in the world in 2014, surpassing longtime leader China in the wake of the People's Republic's recent "anti-extravagance" campaign of austerity. While a good bottle is as affordable as comparable gin or vodka (in the $25-$50 range), you can also stop for a $40,000 bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII Rare Cask 42.6 if you find yourself at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. Or an $800 half-ounce pour if you're looking to save.
The news that America is so into Cognac might come as a surprise to some, because it just doesn't have the same cool appeal that lures many self-proclaimed spirit snobs to stock up on Kentucky bourbon or good sipping rums. An unfortunate thing, but what may still be keeping Cognac out of the average American's liquor cabinet is the fact that it cannot be made in the U.S.A. It seems a little out of reach, a little too fancy for just sitting around by the fireplace. Just as champagne can only really be called "champagne" if it comes from the French region of Champagne, so too must anything branding itself as Cognac come from France's southwestern Cognac region, just over 100 kilometers north of Bordeaux. Even the barrels used for aging Cognac for a minimum of two years stem from oaks grown in Limousin and Tronçais. Despite this civic pride, France only keeps about 3 percent of all Cognac produced annually, exporting the rest: Its citizens prefer whiskey.
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"We do make brandy here in America," notes Schaap. "They drink tons of it in Wisconsin. But it might stir up great international turmoil if we started making brandy and calling it Cognac." E&J Brandy, one of the most popular brands on the market, is produced in Modesto, California. Paul Masson, once best known as the company that paid a drunk Orson Welles to record a legendarily bizarre television commercial, today offers a toothsome bargain brandy co-produced by California and Kentucky distillers.
But Cognac is a place where the lay of the land trumps all. It is a commune invested in the French legislation of appellation d'origine contrôlée: "controlled designation of origin." The other word often associated with France's belief in supporting specific regions by making them the sole providers of select goods is terroir, "a sense of place." "I'm a little funny on the word 'terroir'," Schaap says. "I find it useful, if leaned on a little too much.") French wine, cheese, butter, booze: in each, one may be able to taste the particular qualities of the food or drink’s location. The berries growing nearby to the salt of the sea. Cognac is a sleepy utopia on the river Charente, baked in golden sunlight under cerulean skies. The kind of place Alain Deion used to sulk through in old movies. In his 2005 book Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit, Kyle Jerrard paints the pastoral: "Clams, oysters, gastropods — all these and more lie scattered on the ground wherever you go. Winegrowers will exclaim, 'The ocean was here!' It's maybe 50 kilometers away today, due west. But it was here, all right."
In a true "mother of invention" origin story, Cognac was invented when farmers removed the water from wine to make it more portable on journeys (and cheaper when taxed by volume), like a Cabernet version of frozen Minute Maid concentrate. But when tasted sans eau, the distilled elixir alone proved a unique, delicious means of getting tipsy. Voila: A spirit is born.
Yet without the chance to be fully Americanized, will Cognac ever have its big break in the States? Some would argue that it's been having that moment for years, and that, as always, hip-hop was ahead of the curve. Acts like Nas, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, and Three Six Mafia have long praised cognac — often dubbed "yak" or "nyak" — in their best known tracks. At a Grammy after-party in 2013, Jay Z used the award he'd won as a makeshift chalice to sip D’USSE, prompting Lil Wayne to record an ode to H.O.V.A's hooch a year later. Snoop Dogg is a spokesman for Landy, as was T.I. for Remy Martin until his 2010 incarceration.
As with the best spirits, the entrancing effect of Cognac evokes a bygone era. Its fans are prone to fawning over the sensitivity of the region's white grapes. As with whiskey, age factors into which Cognac is used where. Older vintages can be sipped alone on the rocks, bright young ones mixed into cocktails. For cooks, it can add smoke to cream sauces, such as those that bind porcini to pasta. Less aged Cognac baring the distinctions "VS" (Very Special) and "VSOP" (Very Special or Superior Old Pale) tend to offer notes of pear and apple, while older "XO" (Extra Old or "Napoleon") barrels bring spice, wood, and leather to the tongue quicker than a face-first fall onto your barstool. Small-batch "artisanal" Cognac has, in recent years, taken on a connoisseur audience of its own, sporting a farm-to-table mantra of reduced manufacturing in favor of more terroir per bottle.
The truth is that Cognac should really never be out of style, but now is the perfect time if it is going to have a moment. Like great whisky from Scotland or Canada, it's an insight into the past, it's versatile, and it tastes damn good. That last thing, more than any other reason, is why Americans love the stuff so much. It's also why you should give it a chance if you've been on the ropes about drinking the very French brandy.